Friday, 8 August 2014

Are you beginning to feel THE STRAIN?

Friday, 8 August 2014
EPH: A whole new set of organs has generated to propel this stinger.
We're four episodes into FX's new horror drama THE STRAIN, based on the novels by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan. (No, seriously, they definitely exist.) Are you enjoying it? I know the premiere had some detractors, but I enjoyed its B-movie schlockiness, and having a maestro like del Toro behind the camera didn't hurt. "The Box" was an rather dull second episode, so my enthusiasm halved, but things improved the following week with "Gone Smooth", and I enjoyed the most recent hour, "It's Not for Everyone"—where the title summed up my thoughts on The Strain.

What's working about the show so far? Easy: the vampires. I like that they're monstrous beasts that hijack human hosts, beginning life as a blood worm infection. I still don't understand the place of the other "breeds" we've met (German manipulator Eichorst, and the cloaked 'master vampire' smuggled into the U.S aboard a plane from Berlin), but trust that clarity is coming.

There appears to be a hierarchy, with the contagion creating 'drones' whose job is to propagate the species like walking bloodthirsty viruses. But there are also four survivors from the plane, who seem to be transforming into vampires more akin to Eichorst (who hides his monstrosity with clever makeup and wigs). The Strain is getting a lot of dark humour from the slow human transformations, too, with one goth's penis falling off while peeing into a urinal, and a family man resorting to chaining himself up in a garden shed after slaughtering his own dog.

As of right now, The Strain largely works because most episodes contain nasty or gross events. There are some fantastic images and sequences in the show, and they're naturally very entertaining to watch. For instance, "It's Not for Everyone" saw hero Ephraim Goodweather (Corey Stoll) pulling a snake-length 'tongue/stinger' from a corpse's gullet, which duly triggered a putrid fart of ammonia into the room. You just don't see that shit on Downton Abbey, do you?

The pace has also been surprising, because the outbreak has been much slower going than I was expecting. This is probably because the show can't escalate to near-apocalyptic levels on a FX budget, but we'll see how long they can justify keeping things low-key I don't know if the pacing reflects the novels, but I'm quite enjoying the slow-burn. It's taken four episodes for Eph to even realise he's dealing with something way beyond an exotic infection, and team up with sword-wielding vampire hunter Setrakian (David Bradley), and that's no bad thing.

Where The Strain falls down is the majority of scenes not directly related to the vampire threat. Eph's marital strife and desire to win joint-custody of his son isn't very original, so doesn't do much beyond make his character look like a stereotype. I can only assume Eph's going to be infected soon, putting his loved-ones in danger, so there'll be a ticking clock aspect to him finding a cure.
SETRAKIAN: A thing of enormous power and terrible will. The will to devour the world and swallow the light.
I also didn't buy a bizarre moment in episode 4 when the wife of the aforementioned man transforming into a vampire, fed an irritating neighbour to her husband by pushing him into a shed. I know the show has a sense of humour about things, but it sometimes stretches credibility too far. Any sane person would immediately go to the police, especially as she knows her husband was recently suspected of being contaminated by something and was in quarantine at an airport. Rather than get help, she immediately becomes an accomplice in murder?

There are nine episodes left, which means there's plenty of time for The Strain to settle down and find a sharper balance between the ordinary and the extraordinary. Or enough time to go completely insane and only remain watchable because it keeps delivers fun gross-outs. There's entertainment to be had in a summer show with modest intentions like that (just ask True Blood), but I like to think del Toro would be responsible for something with more substance and intelligence behind it...

Sundays, FX